A showcase for China's hopes

September 27, 2005|By Trudy Rubin

SHANGHAI, China -- Huaihai Street is the fashion-conscious heart of China's New York City, where one huge high-end mall after another stocks every expensive brand from Europe, Asia and the United States.

Halfway along the street is a three-story mall called China's Cybermarket. It is dedicated to electronics: every imaginable brand of computers, hand-held devices, cell phones, cameras and any other wired gizmo on the market.

Morning, noon and evening, its floors are crowded with young Chinese trying out iPods and laptop computers, including IBM ThinkPads (the IBM personal computing division was recently acquired by Lenovo, a leading Chinese computer brand). The youthful energy is infectious.

Welcome to Shanghai, where ambitious teenagers are as eager to check out the latest fashion in computers as they are to gawk at clothes.

China's aspirations to global power and growing wealth are on clear display here. The view is daunting, especially if you have visited the city before. The first time I visited, in 1986, there were no cars on the drab streets, only thousands of bicycles and an occasional taxi. The most impressive part of the city was the Bund, the riverside strip of neoclassical and Art Deco buildings erected in the 1920s and '30s by Western financial houses.

Today, its population is 17.5 million, along with about 3 million migrant workers, and Shanghai is the economic and financial heart of a new world power, a glamorous metropolis of dramatic high-rises and new ring roads and traffic jams. Hundreds of tall buildings have sprouted in the last decade. According to Shanghai officials, the economic output of the city today is 10 times greater than in 1990.

In 1993, I visited Pudong, a marshland across from the Bund, where a few new buildings were under construction. Today, Pudong is the most dramatic part of the city, a skyscraper-filled special economic zone that lights up in dramatic colors every evening. Home to China's stock market and the location for most foreign banks, Pudong is the place where foreigners must set up an office to be part of the Shanghai scene, and the demand for office space keeps growing.

Across the way, the stolid Bund is now glitzed up with new terraced restaurants like M on the Bund, from which one can watch Pudong's bright lights. Take a night boat ride along the Huangpu River and you see that the giant cranes never stop loading containers or huge rolls of pressed steel onto barges.

There is an underside to all this glamour. The fortune that China's central government is pouring into Shanghai and the explosive building spree make for inevitable corruption. Shanghai's wealth underlines the growing gap between rich and poor in China.

The migrant workers who are building the skyscrapers live grim lives, and skyrocketing housing prices make life difficult for ordinary workers. Despite the availability of computers and cell phones, the press and the Internet are still censored.

But what struck me most about Shanghai was the self-confidence of the people. Ten years ago, senior officials dressed poorly and spoke little English. Today, they dress well, many speak English fluently and they speak confidently about their future. And they are eager to know more about the world and the U.S.

At Fudan University in Shanghai, one of China's finest, set in a leafy campus of low concrete buildings, professor Wu Xinbo told me how the school's Center for American Studies has developed. When it started in 1985, it was permitted to focus only on U.S.-China political relations. Gradually, the program expanded to study the U.S. economy. But in recent years, Mr. Wu says, "as we got more sophisticated, we developed the study of U.S. society and religion, and then added the study of the U.S. Congress."

Now, he says, the center has many exchanges with the United States. One Fudan student, listening to our conversation, chimed in: "We get ideas about the U.S. through movies and the Internet and watch CNN on the Internet. But how many American people know what is happening in China?"

I was too embarrassed to answer. But the question haunted me, because the human energy on view in Shanghai symbolizes the inevitable movement of China toward world-power status.

In order to manage their relationship with that new power, Americans will need to know more about what is going on in Shanghai and beyond.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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